The World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report shows that just 32% of professionals in data analysis and artificial intelligence are women. The report identifies some of the major challenges as encouraging interest in the field among girls, and convincing women in engineering to take up emerging roles in the technology space. Dr Reevana Balmahoon aims to change that. She leads the CSIR’s group for artificial intelligence and augmented reality and wants to enhance the experiences of women and young people in this space.
Dr Reevana Balmahoon is on a mission, along with WomEng, to help encourage one million girls around the world to take up careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). She is a research leader in what the tech world calls the ‘jobs of tomorrow’ and she is the tech lead at WomEng, a multi- award winning social enterprise developing high-skilled girls and women for the engineering and technology industries.
A curious mind brought Balmahoon to this point in her career; she acknowledges the role her parents played in helping her decide which career options were available to her in Grade 12. “At the time, I felt this was extremely confusing, but I am grateful to have been able to make an informed decision about pursuing engineering during my tertiary studies. I have not looked back.”
However, her journey has revealed the need for transformation and inclusivity for women who want to pursue this field. “This is a global issue – I remember visiting Microsoft in the United States of America in 2017 and was surprised to see that less than 40% of their tech positions were held by women.” She says the reason for the shortage of females in STEM careers is two-fold: the lack of female role models, and the stereotype that suggests that women cannot be engineers. Balmahoon has resolved to change this reality by encouraging more women to take up space, and has started and contributed to multiple initiatives that intentionally focus on the recruitment of young women into the engineering fraternity.
She leads a dynamic team of researchers who produce cutting-edge research and working solutions across industries in the artificial intelligence (AI) environment. She looks at ways of mobilising the emerging technology of augmented reality (AR), so as to enhance
the insights formulated by AI methodologies. “Some believe that AI poses threats to humankind and others believe it is the best possible way forward. We are working on finding patterns in all types of data, which can be used to make better quality decisions, so that the value of AI and AR can be realised,” she says.
As a researcher in an evolving technology, Balmahoon is constantly looking for new applications of AI and their relationship to enhance how humans experience the world. To keep abreast of the latest advancements, she ensures that her finger is on the pulse of the industry.
“In June 2021, Google and Harvard University unveiled the most detailed image of the human cerebral cortex, with approximately 130 million synapses. With this amazing achievement, the complexity of the human brain is highlighted. Our contributions serve to enhance the decision-making power across industries, while delving deeper into the human mind and understanding how to use these AI algorithms for good.”
Current position: CSIR research group leader for artificial intelligence and augmented reality
Career type: Researcher in artificial intelligence
and augmented reality
Education: PhD (Engineering), University of the Witwatersrand, 2015
MBA, Gordon Institute of Business Science, 2017